Mark L. Strauss’ book How to Read the Bible in Changing Times seeks to help people on how to interpret and apply the scriptures despite time and culture changing since the Bible was originally written. In this review, I will look to summarize some of Strauss’ main aims, focus on some areas of interest throughout the book, and then end with some concluding thoughts. The areas of interest I will be particularly focusing in on are “What the Bible is not” and “Heart-of-God Hermeneutic”. I will seek to adopt a perspective based off of my initial reaction when first introduced to the concepts that the bible must firstly be read with full understanding of its original context before it can be interpreted in our everyday lives. My initial reaction was questioning to what extent must we fully understand the original context? To find value must we research everything regarding the text, similarly to the way a historian would study ancient times, before actually reading the scripture we’d like to read? I hope to unpack some of these questions in this review as well as show how through journeying further with the approach I have come to my own conclusion with Strauss’ approach.
I believe How to Read the Bible in Changing Times could be summarized in three main points that Strauss seeks to make. These points are: to underline the importance of understanding the Bible in its original context, to demonstrate the ways in which Scripture has been misinterpreted, and to show how to apply Scripture in a modern framework.
Strauss starts the book by raising awareness to the reader that reading the bible isn’t as simple as it may seem. His point being that readers cannot simply pick the Bible up and expect it to say something to them, because it was not written to the modern-day reader. The idea of the Bible firstly being written to early Church, then secondly for us is something that Strauss continuously incorporated throughout the rest of the book. Strauss gives examples of the ways in which today’s society has misinterpreted scripture by reading it as if it was written to us directly, by making it a magic-answer book, a list of promises, etc. This is done when readers take individual verses or passages out of context to apply them directly to their lives, culture, and circumstances. Strauss argues that when the Bible is taken out of context it can lead to unsound interpretations that misuse and abuse the Scriptures.
Strauss then goes on to explain what he believes the Bible to be, which is one great redemption Story. He aims to highlights the unity in the diversity of the story, with the Bible having both a divine and human dimension to it. Strauss’ theological and biblical narrative begins with creation, has Christ as the pivotal point in the Story, and ends with new creation. Strauss’ aim is that through understanding the diversity of the Bible and the overall story the bible tells readers will be provided a framework for them on how to: make decisions regarding the Bible, draw conclusions from the text, and apply the Scripture to their lives. Strauss gives readers an outline for exegesis to assist with their mindful unpacking of the context and intension of the Bible. This foundation encourages readers to take the word of God seriously, but not literally with an approach described as “heart-of-God hermeneutic”.
The concept of “heart-of-God hermeneutic” is not obeying every imperative of scripture but rather use scripture to better understand God’s values so that readers can apply them to their lives. Readers are described as participants in the continuing story, therefore through participating in the story, the goal is then to be walking with God’s story and to imitate Christ, not to imitate the Bible. Nevertheless, Strauss encourages readers to not to have an individualism approach when seeking to imitate Christ and participating in the greater Story. Readings should be brought into community, as Biblical interpretation when solely done by one’s self is harmful to the reader and the church body. Strauss’ aim is that readers acknowledge how: the great tradition of church teachings can serve to moderate unbalanced readings, reading with a community of faith ensures accountability for all, and that the Holy Spirit has a role to play in Biblical interpretation in how it is speaking to you as well as through the body of Christ around you.
Finally, Strauss goes on to explain how to apply the heart-of-God hermeneutics to both the Old and New Testament, expands with some examples, and tests how to discern the heart of God through cultural analysis using three theological and ethical test cases concerning areas of church life today: homosexuality, women in the church, and Sabbath. Strauss concludes by stressing the purpose of reading the Bible is to find the heart of God in Scripture and walk alongside Him.
Two areas of interest are Chapter 2: What the Bible is not and Chapter 4: Heart-of-God Hermeneutic.
My approach to reading the bible before reading Strauss’ book, in a simplified explanation, could be put this way: reading the Bible is important and transformative, most scripture could be interpreted to have a practical application in your current life, and understanding the original context could be helpful in developing your knowledge of the passage however was an additional benefit and not essential. In doing so, Strauss would argue that my approach is making the Bible what it is not intended to be. With this approach, for example, reading the Book of Romans did not require me as the reader to fully understand what was happening with the Roman church, to be well versed in Roman culture, or to have a deep understanding of the author and his writings for me to interpret the Bible correctly. This is an approach that Strauss refers to as selective scriptural interpretation. We cannot randomly derive meaning and apply the bible to our current circumstances when looking for direction. Since text cannot mean what it was never intended to mean, putting extra special authority on the Bible and taking it out of context could lead to a false impression. Therefore, in this situation, understanding the context and doing the probably study is not only important to properly interpreting the text, but is important to properly apply it as well. Although God can communicate to us through the random verses or passages in the bible, it is not the way in which we were intended to read it and interpret it. It is also important for readers to be mindful of the fact that biblical commandment and promises are both contextual and contingent. Although we as believers can observe them and see if there are any we can carry on into today, we must be mindful that it was written for a specific audience for a specific moment. Therefore, in order to understand the Bible, one must seek to develop their understanding of the history and context. I do not believe that we must dive in as deep as a historian would, but in order to read the Bible and apply it well, context is important.
Since you cannot simply just randomly select passages from the Bible and apply them, then why do we read the Bible? We read it because it allows us better to understand the heart of God. The Bible is meant to help us love God and our neighbors better. However, the only way in which we can develop a greater knowledge of the heart of God is through reading his Word, and understanding his on-going Story. Understanding the heart of God
address issues and how to live like Christ in our lives, so to achieve this we must understand context. By understanding how the history can help develop a “heart-of-God hermeneutic”, which helps us better understand God’s values and how to be walk alongside with God imitating Christ, reader can experience the transformation power the Bible has. Therefore, the only way to better fully understand Christ, and fully experience all the Bible has to offer, is to read the Bible in its proper context.
Overall, I believe the book is very well written and the context is quite thorough. Strauss is very effective in making the book easy to read, yet without losing the quality of the context. The clarity of which difficult topics are dealt with through the use of simple terms and examples, alongside the use of Biblical reference is done excellently. The book is careful written and filled with a great deal of good sense. Strauss also provides an application of what he is writing on for the reader, which I think communicates his message well and gives the book an essential practicality. My one criticism would be his “to” and “for” distinction throughout the book regarding who the Bible is written to. I think it is a little simplistic and does not consider how the Bible could be written to us, current day Christians, as well.
To conclude, understanding the Bible in its original contexts is important. Scripture can easily be misinterpreted when passages are taken out of context, but when understood in overall story the bible tells readers will be provided a framework for them on how to: make decisions regarding the Bible, draw conclusions from the text, and apply the Scripture to their lives. The Bible is the best way in which Christians can learn about how to love God and their neighbors better. Readers should adopt a “heart-of-God hermeneutic”, so they could better walk alongside God, which is the true beauty of the Christian faith. This however, cannot be done and apply in the modern context until the scripture is understood contextually first.
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